Prejudice as a defence against feeling bad

by May 7, 2012Prejudice0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
An interesting new study in the April edition  of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by  Professors. Jessica Tracy and Ashton-James of the  University of British Columbia has cast light on how feelings of pride link with prejudicial attitudes such as racism or homophobia.  In particular they found that people manifesting a hubristic over-blown pride are much more likely to show high levels of prejudice than those having an ordinary sense of feeling good about oneself from a more self-confident place.  The latter she calls ‘authentic pride’, which might derive from hard work and a genuine sense of achievement, and is  more likely to lead to a more compassionate and empathic attitude to others. Yet the kind of pride which is based on hubris, and presumably geared to bolstering a rather fragile sense of self-esteem, one that is more arrogant and less genuinely self-confident, can derive from asserting oneself via less savoury mechanisms such as nepotism, money or domination. Such hubristic pride suggests a form of feeling good dependent on feeling superior and diminishing others. In many ways such studies simply back up traditional psychoanalytic ideas about defensive ways of managing bad feelings and the power of projective processes as a way of getting rid of such bad feelings in oneself by making others bad. Those with more authentic pride were not only more empathic but they harboured less prejudice.

It seems that such pride is based on shoring oneself up by making another group bad, and of course there is much research that shows that feeling that one belongs makes one feel good. At a moment when we are seeing the increase in far right support in Europe, and UKIP just polled surprisingly high levels of votes, we might worry. As the economic crisis begins to bite more deeply, and unemployment, uncertainty and poverty increase, then with the growing emotional cost of all this we perhaps are in for an increase in prejudice, whether in the form of xenophobia, such as racism, homophobia or its other manifestations.

I have increasingly been struck by how human traits which seem on the side of health can also have a dark side. Our need to belong is typical. Group life, belonging to clubs and societies, have long been shown to be good for us, to boost health and immune functions and levels of wellbeing. Yet our tendency to define ourselves in terms of in-groups and out-groups can also have devastating consequences. Much recent research about gangs casts another angle at a similar phenomenon, the attempt to bolster ones sense of self through group membership. Much recent research attests to how gang membership is more likely to take root when young people come from extremely traumatizing and unsupportive environments, the gangs in effect providing a place to belong, an -in-group with outsiders who can be denigrated.

Another recent study of xenophobia also took my eye which might well be linked. This piece of recent research was another about the hormone oxytocin, which in many ways is a kind of wonder hormone, indeed often referred to as the cuddle or love hormone. It increases trust, emotional understanding, immune functioning, lowers social fear and anxiety, and much more. We have more of it when we feel safe, loved, and also when we belong, and our levels rise in group situations, such as when singing in choirs or bonding on the sports field. Yet a recent study l by Carston Dreu and colleagues in Holland found that oxytocin also leads to higher levels of in-group favouritism and prejudice against out-groups, so that with increased levels of this hormone we see more ethnocentrism and prejudice. For example those given oxytocin were more likely to allow a person of another ethnicity drown than someone from their own background. We evolved it seems to belong to small loyal bands, and this form of group bonding might also be a common form of bolstering a fragile sense of self by feeling part of  a particular in-group and so making those in an out-group the ones we scorn, hate, dismiss or harbour prejudices against. There is more and more evidence about how, when we feel bad, we tend to bolster our in-group sense of belonging and project the badness elsewhere,


Ashton-James, Claire E. & Tracy, Jessica L., 2012. Pride and Prejudice How Feelings About the Self Influence Judgments of Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(4), pp.466–476.

De Dreu, C.K.W. et al., 2011. Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), pp.1262 –1266.

Pyrooz, D.C., Sweeten, G. & Piquero, A.R. (2012) Continuity and change in gang membership and gang embeddedness. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

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